How to Listen to Copland’s Most Famous Fanfare

Let’s begin our music appreciation journey with a fanfare. Not just any fanfare: Aaron Copland’s inimitable “Fanfare for the Common Man”. Copland composed this work in 1942 for the Cincinnati Symphony to honor the war effort. He scored the piece for brass and percussion only, not for a full symphony orchestra that would also include strings (violins, cellos, etc.) and woodwinds (flutes, clarinets, etc.). Aaron Copland has long been one of my favorite composers. The Library of Congress has a link to view the manuscript of this piece for anyone who would like to see the written music. I’ll start by walking through the piece with you, pointing out some landmarks along the way. At the end I’ve added some additional thoughts as to why I love this piece.

A Bold Beginning

Copland immediately grabs your attention with the percussion: timpani, bass drum, and tam-tam (a type of gong). Once established, the percussion gets softer with each repetition to make way for the trumpets who play the main melodic theme of the piece. The theme is firmly in the key of B♭ (B flat) major and sounds very “open”: movement happens by jumps between notes rather than by going up and down a scale. (Wait, you lost me! What’s a “key”? Think of it as “home base” of notes that the piece is built around).

Once through the melodic theme, the percussion breaks in to repeat its own theme that we heard at the beginning. The melodic theme returns, this time as a duet between the trumpets and horns. The theme begins the same as before, but then Copland takes a slight detour up into a slightly higher range before coming back to continue the original theme. Even then he doesn’t repeat exactly what he did the first time – he repeats the series of faster notes before slowing down the last three (D -> F -> B♭). The percussion presents its theme again to usher in the low brass (tuba and trombones). The low brass comes in with additional fanfares. Once the theme arrives in the higher voices it sounds a lot like the trumpet and horn version we heard earlier. Did you hear that? Copland introduces a note we have not yet heard in the piece (2:20). Something should sound just a bit different here, even if you can’t put your finger on it. He also introduces new chords at 2:34 (E♭ major) and 3:14 (F major).

A Surprising End

To finish the piece, Copland takes us in yet another new direction, introducing more notes that are not native to our home key of B♭ major (E♮ and C♯). He repeats the slower fanfare in this new key, ending the piece not back in B♭ major where we would expect, but on a triumphant D major chord (3:27). A lot of music begins and ends on the same “home base”, so for Copland to successfully end on a home base in a neighboring baseball field is rather impressive. Certainly, enjoying Copland’s famous fanfare does not require knowing chords and keys or what they mean. You don’t need to know that the new note he introduces at 2:19 is an A♭, but something should sound just a bit different there from what we’d heard earlier.

I hope that talking about some of the theory involved helps to show what makes this fanfare so effective and powerful. Copland alters rhythms and harmonies to great effect in this piece. He could have easily repeated the same theme in the same way each time, but I believe the piece is much more compelling thanks to his changes. For me, this piece is also effective because it doesn’t have ruffles and flourishes, or extra trills and frills. This piece is powerful in its simplicity, and “simplicity” does not equal “boring”. It truly feels like an homage to the average person who usually goes through life without a lot of bells and whistles. There are many different recordings of “Fanfare for the Common Man” on YouTube. Listen to some of the other versions. What makes them different from one another? Is there a version you prefer? I hope you’ve enjoyed our first foray into music appreciation and that you’ll join me for more!

Looking for a CD of “Fanfare for the Common Man”? Visit my link at Sheet Music Plus! You can also find sheet music for piano solo and brass ensemble.

For the Music Theory Nerds

For those who want to delve more into music theory: At 2:19 he introduces an A♭ into the chord. A♭ is not native to the B♭ major scale. It is, however, in the E♭ major scale; the line travels down from that high A♭ to land eventually on an E♭ major chord (2:33). Then it’s back into B♭ major until 3:06, where he brings back the A♭ plus the addition of a D♭ – another “new” note. Like the A♭, D♭ is not native to the key of B♭ major.  He also lengthens the three-note fanfare so that the first two “quick” notes are not so quick this time. Then he gives us new harmonies for the next phrases, landing on an F major chord at 3:16. While this chord is much more at home within the framework of B♭ major, it is not a chord we have heard in the Fanfare so far.

While using D major at the end of the piece is not expected, it is not completely off base. Its relationship to our original key of B♭ major is called a “chromatic mediant”. This relationship occurs when the new key is based on the third or fifth of a chord. A B♭ major chord contains the notes B♭ (root or tonic), D (third), and F (fifth). Copland makes use of the D, turning that into the new key, albeit for only the last few measures of the piece! The use of D major means his introduction of the E♮ and C♯ makes sense, as those notes are native to the key of — ta da! — D major.

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Lori Archer Sutherland

Librarian & musician. Collects model horses of all sorts. Bass clarinet nerd, doing more composing & arranging.

4 Responses

  1. AppalachianSpring says:

    Thank you for writing and posting this. I enjoyed your appreciation for the fanfare and the direct, clear way you wrote it.

  2. Graciela A Ramirez says:

    awesome post! Would have liked it you put more time frames, I had a little difficulty following.
    Thanks !!

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